Nicola White is a London-based artist best known for the stunning artworks she creates using river glass, driftwood, plastic, and lost/discarded objects found along the Thames foreshore. Fascinating as her own artwork is, the intrigue of Nicola and her work extends far beyond London and the banks of the Thames, as she is also the founder of Art Reach – a charity which supports the artistic expression and development of death row inmates in San Quentin, USA*. With exhibitions of both her own artwork and that of the death row artists she works with due to take place over the next few months, we were keen to find out more about Nicola, her mudlarking adventures, and the important work that she does to support some of America’s most ostracized citizens.
*We will be showcasing the work of the men Nicola supports over the next few weeks, so be sure to keep an eye out for this.
When did you first start making art – was there anything in particular that inspired you?
I first started making art when I was a young girl in Cornwall. I used to frequently go for walks on the beach and pick up shells, sea glass, old rope and driftwood – and enjoy making collages out of them. There was something inspiring about collecting materials that have been tossed out by the tide, objects with a story behind them.
Can you describe the creative process?
The creative process for me starts when I put on my wellingtons and head down to the River Thames to search for objects to use in my artwork. At the moment I am creating a lot of Thames glass fish, using river worn pieces of glass that have been in the River for the most part well over 100 years. I am inspired by the pieces of history which I find washed out by the tide. They all have a secret history and I love the idea of giving these lost or discarded objects a new life in a piece of artwork. I love for the person looking at the art to see beyond the superficial piece and for their imagination to be taken on a journey as they wonder where the individual fragments might have originated from. Once I’ve collected the objects, I take them back to my studio in Kent where I wash them and sort them out into colours and categories. It might be that one particular piece looks like it might make a good head for a fish, or a tail. I’ll then make something building around that particular piece. Or it might be that a piece of metal reminds me of something and so that will be the central inspiration for the piece of work. I often have an initial idea for something, but that usually completely changes by the time I have finished. I tend to just play and see what transpires. What I do find is that when I have finished a Thames glass fish or a collage, it has often created itself. What I love is just letting go and seeing what happens!
You worked as a PA in the City for over twenty years before deciding to focus on your artwork full-time. Why did you decide to leave the corporate world?
As I said before, I’ve always felt a real need to create. It’s that which finally pushed me to leave the corporate world. But it was a long process and a decision I did not take lightly. I firmly subscribe to the saying attributed to Picasso: ‘The meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away.’ I knew that working as a PA was not my gift, and although it served a purpose for many years and I was good at what I did, it was never what inspired me. I started working as a secretary in the corporate world when I was 24, and this was really because I had my son very young and was a single parent and so needed to find something I could do to support him, and quick! I was fortunate enough to speak fluent French and so with that skill, and a college secretarial course, I found work, and managed to sustain a pretty good secretarial career for about 25 years, with my last job being PA to the UK Chairman of a large French investment bank. As my son got older I had more time to dabble in my creative pursuits and then a couple of years ago I really began to question whether I could continue in a profession that just was not the authentic ‘me.’ As my love for creating artwork grew more and more, I started to really consider leaving my work to try to make a living out of something I felt passionate about . Initially, I felt extremely trapped and frustrated as I thought it would never be possible to take that leap, but once you start to really feel driven towards doing something different and making a change, doors gradually open up and solutions can present themselves.
Various things happened which helped me to take that jump. One day when I was feeling particularly frustrated, I took a walk during my lunch break at work and went a different direction than usual, along Regents Canal. It was there that I stumbled upon a large blackboard with ‘Before I die’ written at the top. There were several spaces where you had to complete the phrase, and write what you wanted to do before you die, and there was even a bowl of chalk. There were numerous comments that other people had written. I remember looking around to see if anyone was around, before writing very clearly ‘Before I die, I want to become an artist and quit the bank’. There is something powerful about actually committing an aim or goal down in writing. Not long after that someone gave me a book with the poem ‘The Summer’s Day’ by Mary Oliver. In it is the line ‘Tell me, what will you do with your one wild, precious life.’ I knew that I had to take a risk and leave the security of my job to follow what I felt passionate about. I didn’t want to get to age 75 and regret not trying.
So, I saved up for two years as much as I could, I made plans to let out my flat, and then I finally left my job at the beginning of last year. I’m still finding my way, and I have moments when I feel very uncertain, but I have no doubt whatsoever that it was absolutely the right thing to do. So I suppose, in a nutshell, what pushed me to leave, was that I just couldn’t any longer live a life that felt completely wrong, even if it was secure and safe. I had to venture out of my comfort zone.
What would you say are the main driving forces behind your work?
The driving force behind my work is the need to create, and to express myself creatively. It really is a huge passion for me. I feel a real joy when I’ve finished making a Thames glass fish or a collage using metal and pottery from the River. It’s a great sense of achievement. The need for inner peace and calm is also a driving force. Whenever I’m creating something out of the objects which I pick up along the banks of the River Thames, I’m at complete peace and it is a meditative process.
You’ve found everything from clay pipes to human bones over the years. What’s been your most intriguing find to date?
I’ve found such a variety of fascinating objects in the Thames mud, so it’s hard to choose the most intriguing! I have a few favourites. One is a small brass luggage tag with a name and address engraved on it. Research showed that it belonged to a World War I soldier called Frederic Jury. I found out about his life, how he fought in the trenches, how he married his landlady, and lived in a house not far from where I found the tag. My research finally lead me to his grave in an overgrown part of a cemetery just outside of Greenwich. He married his landlady and had no children. Finding this tag was like opening up a story of a life long forgotten. Another of my favourites is an Elizabeth I half-crown from 1601. I’ve found human remains from the 17th century, and an unexploded hand grenade from World War II. Each mudlarking outing is like going on a treasure hunt. You simply don’t know what you are going to find.
I particularly enjoy finding personal items that would have meant a lot to the owner. I wear a pendant made with three pieces of jewellery I found at different times along the river – a Georgian heart, a Victorian heart charm, and a small silver 17th century crucifix. As well as all these older finds, I have discovered over 100 messages in bottles sent out by Londoners and foreigners over the years. Each message in a bottle has its own story (you can see a selection of Nicola’s mudlarking finds and messages in bottles on her website.)
During my mudlarking excursions I often come across religious offerings washed up on the foreshore, and this has motivated me to find out more about them and why they were thrown in the River. The Thames is considered a holy river by many communities with a variety of faiths and religions. I find a lot of replicas of Gods and Goddesses that have been committed to the Thames. Some are to celebrate festivals, others are offerings of thanks, or prayers for help. The most common finds are Ganesh, Shiva and Boddhai. Even dating back to medieval times, Pilgrims threw badges into the Thames to commemorate places that they had visited. Water has long been associated with spirituality and so it is no surprise that so many prayers and offerings are thrown in the River. I have a great respect for them and usually photograph them, then leave them where they are.
You also run a charity called Art Reach which supports artists serving death row sentences in San Quentin, USA. How did you get into this work?
In 2010 I met a woman here in England who belonged to a charity called Lifelines, which befriends and supports prisoners on death row in the USA through letter writing. I hadn’t ever previously envisaged or set out to do this – but after my conversation with this lady, I gave it some thought, and I liked the idea of sending some light and hope into death row – what I could only imagine was one of the darkest places in the world.
So I joined Lifelines and was allocated a penfriend. After about four years of writing to him I decided I would visit. In this day and age of instant communication, it was interesting to see how you can actually build a friendship through writing letters. I was curious to meet him and see the prison, so I made the trip to San Francisco in April 2015. I spent five hours in a visiting cell with him and we talked. My penfriend always used to send me handmade cards by fellow inmates. Many of the prisoners make cards and artwork, but often they end up stored in their attorney’s office or somewhere where not many people see it. We spoke of this during my visit and I asked him if he thought anyone would be interested in taking part in an art exhibition in London. It was really just a spontaneous idea then and there initially with the aim of enabling them to share their artwork and creative writing beyond the prison walls.
On returning to London, I sent him a few leaflets to give out amongst inmates and I had not expected such a lot of interest. Within a short amount of time I started to receive beautiful artwork (fabric art, ink stippling, paintings, portraits, acrylics etc.), and poems and stories. They were sent by prisoners, and in some cases by their families or their attorneys. I was astounded at the talent and the beautiful artwork which I was receiving. I therefore had to follow through with my idea, and have since arranged several exhibitions here in the UK – which have been very well received. I have many more arranged for this year.
Why is this work important to you?
There are many reasons why I felt I needed to become involved in providing an opportunity to the San Quentin death row artists to express themselves through their art and writing. It is one of our most basic instincts to express ourselves through art. And, as an artist, I know how valuable and life enhancing it is to also be able to share our creations and writings with others. I am fortunate as I can do this as often as I like. It is not always possible when incarcerated on death row.
My own artwork is made with discarded and broken objects, which I collect along the River Thames in London. These objects are largely considered of no further use to society, and I seek to give them a new life in a piece of art. Similarly, these men are largely forgotten about by society and buried deep in death row, or, as Steve Champion (aka Adisa Kamara) – a writer incarcerated for 34 years since he was 18 years old – puts it, ‘fossilised in time and frozen at the worst moment of their lives.’ Through their creations they show that they do still have something of value to offer the world. By arranging exhibitions, I hoped to provide the prisoners with an opportunity to express themselves from behind the prison wall and therefore enable them to go some way towards establishing an identity for themselves above that of just a death row inmate with a prison number.
In prison these men are stripped of everything including their dignity and their identity. Creating art can give them back a higher sense of self and an increased self-esteem. It can also provide them with a sense of purpose in an environment that is depressing and oppressive (visit Art of San Quentin to see their work.)
And in what ways does Art Reach support those behind bars?
I work with about 25 inmates from death row and each one has an extraordinary talent. I can look at a picture and know exactly which one did it as each of their styles is unique. Raising awareness of the death penalty, the exhibitions of San Quentin death row art and poetry here in the UK have served to highlight the importance of creativity to those experiencing difficult circumstances.
Most people who have seen the artwork or visited an exhibition have reacted positively. I keep a comments book by visitors to exhibitions. Work by the prisoners is for sale in most cases – a percentage of the proceeds goes to charity, such as victims of violent crime. The rest goes towards helping the prisoners to purchase more art materials once any costs have been covered. This is not a profit making exercise.
The men you work with have been accused of/committed awful crimes. What’s your response to those who question the validity of the support that you provide through Art Reach?
There may well be people asking ‘Why should these prisoners have an increased self-esteem?’ I am in no way trying to minimise any crimes committed or their effects on victims. My compassion for the prisoners on death row and working with them on their art does not mean that I do not also have a tremendous amount of compassion for victims of crimes. The two are not mutually exclusive and I am very sensitive to that. These men are paying their debt to society by being incarcerated away from society forever, with the imminent threat of execution.
In prison the opportunity to be creative and to find a purpose and focus is a basic human right. There is a quote by Sister Helen Prejean (campaigner for death row prisoners as well as families of murder victims) which resonates with me. When she met a death row prisoner she had been writing to for the first time she said: ‘When I saw his face, it was so human, it blew me away. I got a realisation then, no matter what he had done … he is worth more than the worst thing he ever did.’
When we look at a piece of artwork by a death row prisoner, we are confronted with the humanity of the person behind the piece of work, and the emotions behind the picture. We see more than a condemned person, more than a prisoner who is accused of committing a horrendous crime and who is sentenced to death. They too are capable of creating something thought provoking and beautiful.
Finally, what social and political changes do you hope to see in your lifetime?
A more tolerant society with a greater awareness of the damage we are doing to our planet and a concerted effort to do away with plastic pollution. It goes without saying that I’d like to see an end to the death penalty worldwide. More compassion. Less conflict. Life is short – strive to reach your full potential and be kind. You never know what other people are going through.
Those interested in Nicola’s mudlarking will find a permanent exhibition of her artwork at the Skylark Galleries on the Southbank. And those keen to see the artworks created by the San Quentin death row artists who Nicola supports will have opportunity to do so from 8-29 April at the Old Deptford Cinema in London.
About the Artist
Nicola White is a self-taught artist and River Thames mudlark. Her work is inspired by found objects old and new which she picks up along the Thames foreshore in London. Her aim is for people to look beyond the superficial nature of her work and to embark upon a journey which explores the history and beauty of the individual fragments from which a piece is made.